The importance to RPGing of *engaging* situations

Pedantic

Legend
* As such, I don't call that parasitic design. I call that brilliantly complex and integrated systemization of a premise for play. Particularly so given how capable and robust the PCs are (through the myriad means/resources at the disposal of the PCs and the layered decision-space).

Just to clarify, parasitic design is a specific flavor of mechanic, where the play space deteriorates over time, or as the player acts. A classic example is Tetris, where each block placed speeds up future blocks, until the game is forced to end, or an example that has a specific end state is something like Ghost Stories (or the modern implementation Last Bastion) where each player turn spawns another ghost, and each player action removes on average less than 1 ghost, thus that players need to force the game to trigger the victory condition before they're overwhelmed.

It's a term of art in game design that you use to produce specific gameplay pressures, not a flaw or a criticism of the design of Blades specifically. My experience of Blades is mostly that as a player trying to optimize outcomes, I would prefer to roll as little as possible, because the upside of taking an action is generally smaller than the downside, a hallmark of a parasitic design.

See I would frame this quite differently.

* The game demands players not only make strategic and tactical decisions that are net "positive gamestate-forward", but the game demands those same decisions be integrated with "Advancement-forward" and "dramatic need-forward" (both the individual Scoundrel the player is playing but the Crew at large) and "bold and compelling play-forward." Put another way BIG GAME LAYER + INTEGRATED BIG PROTAGONISM rather than just BIG, DISCRETE GAME LAYER.

That is an imminently more difficult decision-space (and maps profoundly more closely to the way actual, flawed-yet-capable, living creatures in a complex biome and social strata work) than "solve each obstacle optimally, no theme/premise/dramatic need or at-tension incentive structure strings attached."
I don't disagree, but I'd contend this kind of design has a negative impact to engagement on the level of gameplay. I would put the dramatic needs of the situation at the level of goal setting, where character choices, worldbuilding and the interaction between the two create the victory conditions players then pursue, and then players can play optimally to try and succeed at those outcomes. Failure to succeed is absolutely an interesting and possible result of that, which will likely to lead to new goal prioritization.

The drive to "win" achieves the same outcome in the cooperative and competitive games I play (and I play them often with the same people for that reason): it creates interesting board states, from which we can make interesting decisions, and put forth different arguments about how best to proceed. My choice to specialize in grey oil production in Pipeline is not internally different from my choice to propose a stealth approach in a TTRPG; in both cases I'm putting forward an argument that this course of action will best achieve my goals, and then I have to react as the situation unfolds, to see if my choice was correct and/or what other choices need to be made to support it. It does not actually matter if I win (I lost to an orange/grey oil hybrid engine in that game of Pipeline), winning just provides context for me to try and forge a path through a complex system, and test my decisions against an unfolding scenario.

That can, but not does not have to be, a kind of engagement offered in an RPG, but it has implications for the rest of the rules, and rules design that prioritizes other forms of engagement can easily damage it. Really, I'm just saying that Challenge is a viable aesthetic for TTRPG design, and can live comfortable alongside other aesthetics of play, but has a warping element on your design if you want it to be viable. You can't serve all masters with one resolution mechanic, and like everything in game design, there's tradeoffs.

EDIT - All of the above being said, the element of "Spinning Plates" or “Walls Closing In” of Blades in the Dark (and kindred games) can be "bug" rather than "feature" for some players. I've talked to at least one whose cognitive state is just fundamentally wired to be triggered by all of those plates perpetually in the air. This isn’t a game about aligning every incentive structure perfectly in the same direction so there is no tension between them and no tradeoffs, so risk profiles and conflict can be reduced to zero, so consequences can be defanged entirely. So that absolutely is "a thing."

Very much my people. It's probably important to note this kind of engagement through optimization isn't about success, it's about the pursuit of success. Try to minimize challenges and maximize efficiencies is only interesting in environments with meaningful obstacles to push against. You see similar playloops in roguelikes, for example, where the player will often repeatedly fail as they try and find the best use of randomized, limited resources against a challenge they slowly build up more knowledge of on repeated attempts.
 
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kenada

Legend
Supporter
Just to clarify, parasitic design is a specific flavor of mechanic, where the play space deteriorates over time, or as the player acts. A classic example is Tetris, where each block placed speeds up future blocks, until the game is forced to end, or an example that has a specific end state is something like Ghost Stories (or the modern implementation Last Bastion) where each player turn spawns another ghost, and each player action removes on average less than 1 ghost, thus that players need to force the game to trigger the victory condition before they're overwhelmed.

It's a term of art in game design that you use to produce specific gameplay pressures, not a flaw or a criticism of the design of Blades specifically. My experience of Blades is mostly that as a player trying to optimize outcomes, I would prefer to roll as little as possible, because the upside of taking an action is generally smaller than the downside, a hallmark of a parasitic design.
That seems different from the following video? I tried looking for other sources, but I didn’t have any luck.

 

Pedantic

Legend
That seems different from the following video? I tried looking for other sources, but I didn’t have any luck.


I think we may have run across the term in different use cases and contexts, this probably predates where I've run across it. I picked it up from my board game designer friends, when talking about certain kinds of mechanic that intentionally undermine the board state, to drive the game to a specific resolution. For example, I have a friend working on a bag-building game that slowly degrades the probability of drawing a beneficial token each time you use a token to resolve a problem.

I'm going to bet this is probably the origin of the term, and it's been modified/corrupted into the context where I found it (probably because it doesn't have much use in self-contained games that don't receive expansion as described in that video).
 

pemerton

Legend
[*]Another factor that I have seen to be compelling is a mystery players become intrigued by. In this case, they might not know whether that mystery connects with anything they care about... rather they come to care about the mystery itself. A new itch they want to scratch, might be another way to put this. I mention this, because "have shown" perhaps puts things unnecessarily into the past tense. It is as good if players find that their PCs care about the somethings in question.
Isn't this just saying that the players might find a GM's hook interesting? Sure, they might. I don't think this is the most reliable pathway to engaging situations, though. Because they also might not.
 

pemerton

Legend
I think an interesting question about BitD (which I don't play, and know only by reputation) and also Torchbearer (which I do play, and like a lot) is whether - or, perhaps, under what conditions - they really are parasitic in @Pedantic's sense.

@kenada posted an actual play counterexample of his BitD experience.

In my TB game, which is now (I think, from memory) 9 sessions in, the PCs still struggle to maintain adequate inventories, and one still has as his goal to {i]get shoes[/i]. But the PCs are also progressing in their skills and abilities, and two will get to 3rd level in the next Town Phase and the other two should get to 2nd level.

In Torchbearer there is no upside to not taking actions - there is literally no game play in the absence of declared actions (even going shopping is a Resources check) - and once actions are taken, the dice will be rolled (unless the GM counts it as a good idea, but then as well as the dice not being rolled, it doesn't earn a test towards advancement).

The skill of play is balancing risk/reward judgements about how far to push in a multi-dimensionally-constrained decision-making space (conditions accruing on a Moldvay Basic-like "turns" basis; light sources running out; food and water running out; needing those empty backpack slots to carry your loot; needing enough loot to pay for accommodation to rest to recover from your conditions; etc); while also aiming at your PC's dramatic/thematic stuff (because that's what earns the Fate and Persona points that both (i) make mechanical success possible, and (ii) play the role of D&D XP in level progression).

While acknowledging that the details of BitD are quite different, I'm going to guess that at a certain level of abstraction the decision-making space is comparable.
 

hawkeyefan

Legend
3) @hawkeyefan might say something about that. Or he might say something about our longterm game of Stonetop where he serves as Judge of the Village where he is cast as town mediator, de facto sage, and with censuring the manyfold agents of chaos and the enemies of civilization and harmonious order in a myth-drenched world and Points of Light setting.

I think I’m less certain of all the factors that go into Dogs in the Vineyard compared to Stonetop. I mean, I’m aware of them, and I have a good idea of what matters in conflicts. I’m definitely playing Brother Isaiah as a bit more lenient than I think many Dogs may be by default from the book, and probably less so than the other two PCs. Or at least, lenient about certain things. But I’m also playing him with a sense of him making up for his lack of sharpness with forthrightness. And the situation in town is certainly dangerous, which is at least partly why I figured it’d be a good idea to have another person on our side in Sister Constance. Her indulgences gave me the leverage I needed to get her on my side. Once we’re through the immediate danger, then I think Isaiah will want to revisit those indulgences… especially as they relate to her ward and his behavior.

We’ll see!

My experience of Blades is mostly that as a player trying to optimize outcomes, I would prefer to roll as little as possible, because the upside of taking an action is generally smaller than the downside, a hallmark of a parasitic design.

This is an attitude I’ve seen in many games, and to be honest it’s often anathema to play. It’s certainly a phenomenon I’ve witnessed, but rarely if at all with Blades in the Dark.
 

pemerton

Legend
@hawkeyefan I agree that wanting to roll as little as possible is often anathema to play. My favourite RPGs all rely on dice rolls to adjudicate action declarations: Rolemaster back in the day, Classic Traveller, 4e D&D, Agon, BW, Torchbearer, MHRP/Cortex+ Heroic, etc, etc.

I know there is an idea that, at least in some systems, the goal is to describe one's actions with such cleverness relative to fictional position that no roll will be called for - this is often associated with classic D&D, although even Gygax in his DMG flags it as one of two equally viable approaches to discovering secret doors, and in his discussion of saving throws Gygax suggests that fictional positioning might modify the roll and result rather than obviating the need to roll altogether.

I personally don't really like that approach: as a player it makes me have to solve puzzles when I'd rather inhabit my character in emotional/aspirational terms; as a GM it makes me have to adjudicate cleverness which I'm not very clever at! Whereas in (say) BW or TB, all I have to do is come up with consequences for failure, and I've got a good imagination for that!
 

Just to clarify, parasitic design is a specific flavor of mechanic, where the play space deteriorates over time, or as the player acts. A classic example is Tetris, where each block placed speeds up future blocks, until the game is forced to end, or an example that has a specific end state is something like Ghost Stories (or the modern implementation Last Bastion) where each player turn spawns another ghost, and each player action removes on average less than 1 ghost, thus that players need to force the game to trigger the victory condition before they're overwhelmed.

It's a term of art in game design that you use to produce specific gameplay pressures, not a flaw or a criticism of the design of Blades specifically. My experience of Blades is mostly that as a player trying to optimize outcomes, I would prefer to roll as little as possible, because the upside of taking an action is generally smaller than the downside, a hallmark of a parasitic design.


I don't disagree, but I'd contend this kind of design has a negative impact to engagement on the level of gameplay. I would put the dramatic needs of the situation at the level of goal setting, where character choices, worldbuilding and the interaction between the two create the victory conditions players then pursue, and then players can play optimally to try and succeed at those outcomes. Failure to succeed is absolutely an interesting and possible result of that, which will likely to lead to new goal prioritization.

The drive to "win" achieves the same outcome in the cooperative and competitive games I play (and I play them often with the same people for that reason): it creates interesting board states, from which we can make interesting decisions, and put forth different arguments about how best to proceed. My choice to specialize in grey oil production in Pipeline is not internally different from my choice to propose a stealth approach in a TTRPG; in both cases I'm putting forward an argument that this course of action will best achieve my goals, and then I have to react as the situation unfolds, to see if my choice was correct and/or what other choices need to be made to support it. It does not actually matter if I win (I lost to an orange/grey oil hybrid engine in that game of Pipeline), winning just provides context for me to try and forge a path through a complex system, and test my decisions against an unfolding scenario.

That can, but not does not have to be, a kind of engagement offered in an RPG, but it has implications for the rest of the rules, and rules design that prioritizes other forms of engagement can easily damage it. Really, I'm just saying that Challenge is a viable aesthetic for TTRPG design, and can live comfortable alongside other aesthetics of play, but has a warping element on your design if you want it to be viable. You can't serve all masters with one resolution mechanic, and like everything in game design, there's tradeoffs.



Very much my people. It's probably important to note this kind of engagement through optimization isn't about success, it's about the pursuit of success. Try to minimize challenges and maximize efficiencies is only interesting in environments with meaningful obstacles to push against. You see similar playloops in roguelikes, for example, where the player will often repeatedly fail as they try and find the best use of randomized, limited resources against a challenge they slowly build up more knowledge of on repeated attempts.

I’m out of town so not going to be able to get as meaty a post up as I would like (with supporting play excerpts). But let me just say that I really like your postings so far; your thoughtfulness, clarity , and willingness to engage at a technical level! While ENWorld has a cultural history of taking offense at “jargon” and expressing offense at the connotation of a descriptor like “Parasitic” (well…at least the history is there if the jargon and offense-taking is downstream of Forge analysis!), that won’t be happening here. Its a good piece of technical vocabulary I think (even if this is my first encountering it), and you’ve explained the concept well.

That being said…

I don’t think the dynamics of your “Parasitic Design” capture the ethos or intentful design or actual experience and outputs of play in games like Blades or Torchbearer.

Yes, the Skilled Play threshold is high and you absolutely get punished for “misplays” (in Torchbeaer especially), but neither of those games are designed to ensure a “stall” or “unrecoverable spiral.” That can happen through a succession of misplays for sure. But its not encoded.

Further, both of those games have a similar “arc of prowess wave-cresting” lets call it. It’s absolutely at Tier 2 (where you’re likely Quality 3 in several shticks, have Allies to call upon, have potent Cohorts, Advances, Resists, and Action Roll Dots) for Blades and then again at Tier 4. Torchbearer is s little more dynamic and malleable with respect to this, but there are clear step changes in prowess by Level 4 and then again at 6.

And again, in Blades the base competency built into a PC by way of all discrete and intersecting tactical and strategic levers and widgets available from “Go” (to control the trajectory of the gamestate) is far, far more than any D&D game I’ve run outside of 4e. Torchbearer has similar levers and widgets but they’re in Descriptor-Based-Abilities and thematic/dramatic currency which broadens and amplifies your ability to dictate Tests/Contests and then Win a healthy share of the “must-haves” while settling for Failures (and Failure in TB is rough but its “forward”) and having a nice measure of ability to dictate when they occur (like using a Trait against you to earn Checks, a mandatory currency for powering Camp phase, and maybe accrue a mandatory Failure toward Advancement on a Test where the Consequence-space is one you feel you can bear).

Anyhoo, I like your designator, I just don’t see it applying to these games (in fact, I would say that some of the things you’re invoking are precisely why BitD and TB are such beautifully crafted game engines that distill masterful play from skillful play from less than from “misplay city!”).
 
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hawkeyefan

Legend
@hawkeyefan I agree that wanting to roll as little as possible is often anathema to play. My favourite RPGs all rely on dice rolls to adjudicate action declarations: Rolemaster back in the day, Classic Traveller, 4e D&D, Agon, BW, Torchbearer, MHRP/Cortex+ Heroic, etc, etc.

I know there is an idea that, at least in some systems, the goal is to describe one's actions with such cleverness relative to fictional position that no roll will be called for - this is often associated with classic D&D, although even Gygax in his DMG flags it as one of two equally viable approaches to discovering secret doors, and in his discussion of saving throws Gygax suggests that fictional positioning might modify the roll and result rather than obviating the need to roll altogether.

I personally don't really like that approach: as a player it makes me have to solve puzzles when I'd rather inhabit my character in emotional/aspirational terms; as a GM it makes me have to adjudicate cleverness which I'm not very clever at! Whereas in (say) BW or TB, all I have to do is come up with consequences for failure, and I've got a good imagination for that!

I think it can make sense if the game is designed with that kind of intent. That resource management is paramount, and the game is primarily about player skill. In that case, coming up with a clever solution that uses few or even no resources is preferrable than having to resort to a costly use of resources. I think that earlier versions of D&D with their focus on dungeon delving and wilderness exploration are good examples of this kind of play.

And although there are elements of resource management in most games, I don't think they all fall into such a category. Blades certainly has resource management as a main element... you have gear, stress, heat, and perhaps all kinds of clocks in play that all potentially need to be thought about whenever you make a decision on what to do. But the resources are meant to be used, not saved. They're all replenishable in some way.... the game doesn't want you to hoard them, it wants you to use them as effectively as possible. So the idea of holding back in favor of finding a solution that doesn't use a resource... that's just not a thing in Blades.
 

clearstream

(He, Him)
Isn't this just saying that the players might find a GM's hook interesting?
Not solely; it's taken a little out of context.

Sure, they might. I don't think this is the most reliable pathway to engaging situations, though. Because they also might not.
Here I am examining not reliability (on which I agree with you) but possibility. By what process might players without an express continuum of interests possibly engage with the contents of a situation? In part, I am interested in what might be called a time-zero problem (the starting point of the continuum.)

I hope it is clear that I am agreeing with a sense that meaning is unlikely to subsist in the contents of a situation alone. It is foremost, found in a relationship between those contents and the players. It is not guaranteed that what a DM finds meaningful, their players will find meaningful! I believe a post-modernist perspective would additionally hold that it is the totality of the contents (i.e. the context) that will inform the meaning (so that the meaning of an element among some contents will change, given those contents are changed.)

One way of increasing the probability of an element of the contents being meaningful to players is to consider what is known about those players. As you have outlined, something that is known is what they have shown they care about. My less-reliable example illustrates that there are possibly also things that they care about that they might not have shown, but that are known about their nature as human beings.

Coming back to reliability, I suggest meaning subsists in the contents of the given bounded situation in light of 1) the players, 2) the contents of that which has gone before, and 3) the contents of that which is anticipated to go on after. Players can be expected to be reasonably (but not perfectly) reliable (as reporters of their own inner state) in identifying what among that continuum of content they care about. (Implying of course that play can unravel with an eye toward engagment going forward. This in turn implies that player input into what happens next is likely to pay off as increased engagement.)

Roughly, I think the OP describes how a mode of RPG is constructed, and discusses a heuristic for predicting player interest in the contents of novel bounded situations. It advocates observing or listening to players as a means to predict their interest in the contents of those situations. What I hoped to contribute focuses on "novel" and "bounded" (words I know I have introduced, but hopefully others will see how they arise.) In essence, meaning cannot be adequately predicted in a bounded situation because it arises (relies upon) both the interpreters of meaning (acutely, the players), oriented toward the contents of a context that is ongoing. What has gone before, what can be foreseen, what players have shown interest in, and - albeit less reliably - what players as humans may be expected to be interested in.

In a sense, the point is tautological. Unsurprisingly, players turn out to be interested in that which they are interested in. What is instructive is recognising that they typically will show what they are interested in, and what they have shown can be used (informally) to make predictions. Another prediction is that foreshadowed or recurrent elements are more likely to be found meaningful than novel elements, ceteris paribus.
 
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